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Killing ourselves slowly

By Darryl D'Monte

With growing calls for the reintroduction of DDT to fight the resurgence of malaria worldwide, we must not forget the reasons why many countries have banned this toxic substance and other dangerous chemicals that cause cancers and other persistent diseases that impair health and possibly prove fatal

Chemicals are so ubiquitous that we often forget about them. They range from plastics to pigments for use in paint and dyes, to precursors for pharmaceuticals, computers, toys, perfume, T-shirts, shoes and products that we use every day. There are now a staggering 100,000 chemicals currently in commercial use. Indeed, with the proliferation of the IT industry, the spectre of "e-waste" or electronic waste is now hovering over poor societies.

We are all aware of the ubiquity of chemicals in our daily lives. Or are we? At a recent meeting of international environmental journalists, organised by the NGO Greenaccord in Rome, a WWF representative, Eva Alessi, emphasised how chemicals have permeated every nook and corner of human existence, often with disastrous consequences.

The WWF took blood samples of 13 families across Europe, across three generations. To drive the point home, these were not your average persons-on-the-street, the hoi polloi, but some of the most influential people in their societies. They included members of the European Parliament, 14 directors of newspapers and magazines, and other VIPs.

The findings were nothing short of shocking: all the samples were contaminated by a cocktail of hazardous chemicals. That is literally close to the bone.

As Alessi cited: "Blood samples were analysed for more than 100 persistent, bio-accumulative and/or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, many of which are found in everyday consumer products, like organochlorine pesticides (including DDT)." At a time when pesticide companies are renewing attempts to popularise DDT in India, also as a weapon against malaria, this new evidence from Europe, where DDT has been banned for several years, will fan the flames of the old controversy over whether DDT is beneficial or harmful to human life.

The WWF says: "The results of these surveys show that every person, from grandmothers to children to VIP to MEP, is contaminated by a cocktail of at least 20 different man-made chemicals. Some of the identified chemicals, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT, have been banned for decades but persist in the environment and continue to contaminate new generations."

Some key findings are:

  • Of the 107 chemicals analysed, a total of 73 were detected in the whole survey. Sixty-three were found in grandmothers, 49 in mothers, and 59 in children.
  • Brominated flame retardants, organochlorine pesticides, PCBs, perfluorinated chemicals and artificial musks (fragrances) were found in the blood of every family member tested, including children as young as 12.
  • The children's generation had the highest median level of PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) flame retardants, PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) and artificial musks.
  • Of the 31 different PBDEs analysed, 17 were found in children compared to 10 in grandmothers and 8 in mothers

Chemicals are so ubiquitous that we often forget about them. They exist in products that range from plastics to pigments for use in paint and dyes, to precursors for pharmaceuticals, computers, toys, perfume, T-shirts, shoes, items that we use every day. There are now a staggering 100,000 chemicals currently in commercial use. Indeed, with the proliferation of the IT industry, the spectre of "e-waste" or electronic waste is now hovering over poor societies. At last year's Vatavaran environmental film festival in Delhi, for example, a film depicted how uninformed recyclers of e-waste in the capital were salvaging materials from computers that had been junked, at huge risk to their health.

If, as the WWF alleges, little is known about the impact of these chemicals in Europe, the situation in this country can well be imagined. There are 30,000 industrial chemicals in use in Europe, but the public is not informed about the consequences of using most of them. While some monitoring of chemicals was introduced after 1981, the persistent prevalence of chemicals introduced earlier -- as the WWF survey shows -- is seldom, if at all, addressed.

A growing number of industrial chemicals are known to contaminate people. Some recent examples:

  • Brominated flame retardants: Contaminates people and wildlife across the world. Two were phased out in Europe (penta and octa). Deca is increasingly being used, despite contaminating polar bears, birds of prey and people.
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): Used in Scotchguard, teflon-manufacture. Action to phase out such chemicals has been slow and ineffective.

How should we tackle this problem? A sustainable chemical regulatory system requires substantial improvements in current systems, to first ensure availability of safety data on all chemicals. Secondly, there is a need to create effective methods of restricting and phasing out problem chemicals. Thirdly, downstream users need to be educated in safe use (and disposal) of chemicals. Chemical manufacturers should take more responsibility for what they produce, and safer products or substitutes must be promoted.

The WWF's initial concern began when it discovered chemicals like DDT and PCBs in the bodies of wildlife in the 1990s. It didn't take rocket science to conclude that if polar bears and the like were being affected, humans could not escape this fate. This, among other things, is what led much earlier to the furore over DDT. While proponents of its use pointed out that it killed pests that would otherwise deplete foodgrain stocks and cause starvation, critics alleged that it would, in the long run, cause cancers and other persistent diseases that would impair health and possibly prove fatal. It was once cited how Indians had more DDT in their bodies than any other nationals in the world. One has only to recall the WHO poster a few decades ago, which showed a bare breast with the caption: "Milk in these containers is unfit for human consumption."

Perhaps the most startling finding by the WWF (and Greenpeace) is the emergence of endocrine-disrupters. Because these toxic chemicals hit humans -- more particularly macho males! -- where it hurts most (below the belt!) by lowering fertility or even causing changes in sex, they have caused worldwide alarm. The WWF and Greenpeace have been accused by the chemicals industry of spreading unnecessary alarm about these chemicals, but their consequences cannot be simply dismissed as scare-mongering. It is now common knowledge that the sperm count of males worldwide is declining.

Alessi observed: "These chemicals, which have recently attracted great public and scientific attention, are a structurally diverse group of compounds that may adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife and/or their progeny, by interacting with the endocrine system, and particularly influencing reproductive function. They can mimic endogenous hormones, disrupt reproductive functions and cause developmental abnormalities (such as intersexes) in wild animal populations. They include chemicals heavily used in the past, in industry and agriculture, such as polychlorinated biphenyls and organochlorine pesticides, and chemicals currently used as plasticisers and surfactants." Sources of these chemicals include farming, livestock, forestry, industrial chemicals, waste incineration, consumer products, food, pharmaceuticals and sewage discharge.

In Stockholm, at the recent annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, participants were taken to a marine research station some distance away from the city where researchers provided a graphic example of such processes at work. Since Sweden is largely composed of islands, and the people there are sea-loving, they tend to go boating a great deal. When the Swedes found that their boats were getting encrusted with shellfish and other marine life, which impeded speed, a special paint was devised which deterred these creatures from attaching themselves to the vessels. However, when the researchers began examining life in the shallow Baltic Sea, they found that the paint had begun to lead to sex changes in snails and other marine life. This led to a ban on such paints in Europe.

One of the little known facts about DDT is that it is also an endocrine-disrupter, according to research carried out only last year. It was developed in the 1940s and used as an insecticide against a very wide range of pests, particularly malarial mosquitoes, and as an agricultural insecticide. It is a long-lasting toxic chemical that builds up in the tissue of living organisms like plants and in the fatty tissue of animals and humans. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, it may cause cancer in humans. The US Environment Protection Agency too states that DDT probably causes human carcinogens. DDT sticks to soil, can travel long distances and causes widespread global dispersion. It has been banned in many countries, including the EU, since 1970 (regulated by international treaty as a "POP" or persistent organic pollutant). It is still used in some developing countries.

The dilemma of whether to ban toxics like DDT or restrict and control their use has been compounded by climate change. At the Rome meet, Dr Andrew Githeko of the Kenya Medical Institute listed how the 1990s was the hottest decade in the world's recorded meteorological history (and 1998 the hottest year since 1861). We are witnessing the resurgence not only of malaria, but also dengue, chikungunya and even the dreaded yellow fever. North America is experiencing cases of Lyme disease and West Nile fever due to very warm summers; malaria has raised its head in eastern Europe. All this has revived demands for the use of DDT and similar chemicals -- very much a Faustian bargain.

Without sounding alarmist, the WWF points to the need to take proper measures. As Alessi said: "A new principle for guiding human activities, to prevent harm to the environment and to human health, has been emerging during the past 10 years. It is called the 'principle of precautionary action', or the 'precautionary principle'. In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation (as endorsed at the Wingspread conference in Wisconsin in the US in 1998). In view of the magnitude of the potential risks associated with endocrine-disrupters, scientific uncertainty should not delay precautionary action on reducing the exposure to and from the risks."

Needless to say, all this is a far cry from the situation in this country where the indiscriminate use of pesticides like endosulphan in cashew nut plantations in Kerala has caused the most horrific abnormalities. While these cases have been documented to some extent, the "slow poison" associated with widespread use of chemicals is proceeding unabated. In 2001, the UN Environment Programme laid down a treaty on POPs, which also governed the "dirty dozen" -- 12 chemicals that include DDT, aldrin and chlordane. Apart from pesticides and fungicides, there are PCBs, which are primarily used in capacitors and transformers, paint, adhesives, as well as dioxins, by-products of combustion, of chlorine bleaching and paper bleaching. These chemicals surround us "every step we take".

The Delhi-based NGO, Toxics Link, has done some pioneering work in making us aware of this slow poison. But much more needs to be done. For a start, the chemicals industry needs to become more proactive in disclosing the ingredients of its products and by-products, and what these may entail. And, to draw a parallel with the earlier phase of the campaign against child labour, the more hazardous occupations involving toxics, like ship-breaking and recycling waste, ought to be strictly monitored, if not banned outright. The counter argument, that we cannot afford to do this in a poor country, will not wash. On the contrary, if people are poor, illiterate and undernourished, their degree of protection against such contamination should be enhanced rather than lowered.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2006